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Youth Mail-In Voting Increased in 2020, but Restrictions Threaten Access in 2022

Young people tend to mail or drop off their ballots later than older voters, which may present challenges in states with less forgiving deadlines.

Lead Author: Peter de Guzman
Contributors: Alberto Medina, Maha Mapara


Following the 2020 Presidential Election, CIRCLE’s analysis of our 2020 Post-Election Poll found that many young people voted by mail or absentee ballot drop-off due to the COVID-19 pandemic

The November 2022 midterm elections are the first midterm elections since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an electoral landscape that has been shaped by the pandemic and debates over the security of American elections, the ways in which young people vote by mail have become increasingly important. 

As we look forward to the upcoming elections, our analysis of 2020 survey data highlights trends that could play a role in the 2022 midterms:

  • 45% of young voters reported that they voted by mail or absentee ballot drop-off in the 2020 election, more than double the percentage of youth who reported using these vote methods in 2016
  • About half (49%) of youth who voted with mail ballots dropped them off, and youth of color were even more likely to drop off ballots (as opposed to mailing them) than white youth
  • Young people with no college experience (ages 21-29) adopted vote by mail at lower rates, and said they found it harder to complete their mail ballots
  • Young voters, especially young voters of color, are more likely to return their absentee ballots just a few days before or on Election Day, putting them at risk for not being able to solve issues with their ballot

About the Data

This analysis utilizes data on 18- to 29-year-old voters from the 2016 and 2020 Survey of the Performance of American Elections (SPAE), a survey of registered voters maintained by the MIT Election Data and Science Lab conducted the morning after each federal election. Because this analysis only uses data on registered voters, there may be some youth who were unregistered in 2020 who have previous experience with voting by mail and whose views aren’t represented here but are nonetheless important when thinking about voting access in American elections.

Young Voters View Mail-In Voting as a Convenient Option

In 2020, nearly half (47%) of voters of all ages reported that they voted or attempted to vote in the 2020 elections using vote by mail or absentee ballot drop-off. This voting method was also popular among young voters: 45% of 18- to 29-year-olds reported that they voted by mail or absentee ballot drop-off in the 2020 election, more than doubling the 19% of youth in that age group who reported that they voted by mail in 2016. About a third (34%) of young voters said they voted in-person on Election Day, and the remaining 21% reported voting early in person. 

Three in ten (30%) 18- to 29-year-olds said they were first time voters in the 2020 election, and of these first time voters, 44% reported voting by mail or absentee ballot drop-off. There were no large differences in vote method between those that identified themselves as first time voters in the 2020 election, and those that said they had previous experience with voting. That was nearly identical to the 45% of young people who said they had voted previously and who reported that they voted by mail or absentee ballot drop-off in 2020.

Young people cited a variety of reasons as their impetus for voting by mail or absentee ballot in 2020. Two in five (41%) of 18- to 29-year-olds said they used an absentee ballot because they were worried about the COVID-19 virus. Nearly three in ten (28%) said that absentee ballots were just more convenient for them in 2020. This continues a trend observed in the 2016 Survey of the Performance of American Elections, when 29% of young people ages 18-29 cited convenience as their reason for voting by mail. CIRCLE research has found that many young people face barriers to voting in-person related transportation, long lines, and no time off work. Vote by mail and absentee ballot drop-off provides young voters with flexibility and enables them to overcome some of these barriers to voting. 

Additionally, 12% of youth said that they have signed up to receive a mail or absentee ballot automatically in each election. Five states (AZ, MD, MT, NJ, and VA) and Washington, D.C., maintain permanent absentee voter lists that allow any voter to register to automatically receive an absentee ballot in each election. Other states allow for voters with documented permanent disabilities to register for a permanent absentee voter list. 

Youth without College Experience Used Vote by Mail at a Lower Rate

Despite overall increases in the rate of mail-in and absentee voting, young people with no college experience remained the least likely to vote by mail and the most likely to vote in person on Election Day. Nearly half (46%) of youth ages 21-29 without college experience voted in person on Election Day, compared to about a third (32%) of youth in that age group with college experience. (We focus on this age group to exclude younger individuals who may yet intend to pursue higher education but have not yet enrolled.)

In 2016 there were also differences among youth with no college experience by race/ethnicity: youth of color with no college experience were the least likely to report having voted by mail. But in 2020 that trend reversed, if only slightly: 40% of youth of color (ages 21-29) with no college experience voted by mail or absentee ballot drop-off, compared to  36% of all non-college youth—a noteworthy, though not statistically significant difference.

Nearly Half of Youth Dropped Off their Absentee Ballots, Preferred Drop Boxes

Nearly half (49%) of 18- to 29-years-old voters said that they dropped off their absentee ballot in 2020—as opposed to mailing it off. That was even higher for youth of color: 54% of young voters of color reported that they dropped off their absentee ballot, compared to 46% of white youth. The delayed delivery of mail ballots in many states may have contributed to a lack of trust among young people in the ability for their mailed ballot to be returned on time, leading them to instead drop off their ballots in-person. Drop boxes present a convenient alternative for young voters.

Among young people who returned their own absentee ballot, 43% returned it at a drop box used only for ballots, instead of at an election office or polling place. Twenty-six states explicitly require ballot drop boxes, with requirements regarding their design, number, and location differing by state. Additional states may provide drop boxes without legislative requirements. Nearly one in five (18%) young people returned their mail ballots at a main election office, and 13% returned their ballots to a post office box at a USPS location. During the 2020 elections, 39 states and Washington, D.C., provided voters the opportunity to return their mail ballots at drop boxes

However, following the 2020 election, states like Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Texas, and Wisconsin have put in place restrictions on voters’ access to ballot drop boxes. Some of these restrictions are currently being debated in state legislatures or tied up in legal battles as of this writing. For example, a bill being considered in Pennsylvania would limit drop boxes to only being available during select hours in the week leading up to an election, and an ongoing court battle in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, is debating the implementation of limits on drop box hours while requiring strict monitoring of their use by voters. 

In addition, 13% of young people reported that they returned their absentee ballot to a neighborhood polling place—as opposed to a primary elections official or county clerks’ office. However, this is not an option everywhere: 20 states have restrictions against voters returning their absentee ballot to their local polling location. Instead, these states often require ballots to be mailed or hand-delivered to an election office in the voter’s county or deposited in a specific drop box. 

Nearly one in five (18%) voters ages 18-29 reported that someone else returned their mail ballot, compared to 10% of voters over 29-years-old. Four states (Alabama, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin) do not allow someone other than the voter to return an absentee/mail ballot on behalf of the voter. Fourteen states have time or quantity restrictions on the return of mail ballots on behalf of other voters.

Young people who dropped off their absentee ballot reported choosing locations that were convenient to their daily routine. Just over half (53%) said they picked the location because it was close to their home, and 14% said they chose one because it was convenient relative to their work or school. 

In addition, 14% reported that they chose their drop-off location because it was close to where they had errands to run, and 32% said that they fit other errands into the trip when they went to return their ballot. An overwhelming majority (91%) of young voters said they were able to drop off their ballot in less than 10 minutes. But this differed for youth of color, 15% of whom said they had to wait at least 10-30 minutes to return their absentee ballot, compared to 4% of white youth who reported similar wait times. 

Youth Return their Ballots Later, Risking Difficulties Completing the Process

In states that do not conduct all-mail elections (in which ballots are automatically mailed to all registered voters), individuals who want to vote by mail must complete a multi-step process. They must register to vote, request an absentee ballot application, return that absentee ballot application, and then complete and return their absentee ballot by Election Day or an earlier predetermined date. This process can take time, and while some states will accept absentee ballots that arrive after Election Day provided that they were postmarked before or on Election Day, policies differ by state. 

Concerns about time and deadlines are very important when it comes to youth voting access. CIRCLE’s 2020 post-election survey found that 28% of young people who were not registered to vote in 2020  said it was because they didn’t have time or missed the registration deadline. In addition to registration deadlines, the deadlines to request an absentee ballot differ by state. A CIRCLE analysis of each state’s electoral policies (conducted in August 2022) found that 24  states have a deadline to request a mail ballot that is at least one week before Election Day, while 18 states allow voters to submit a mail ballot application within one week of Election Day.

Less time can mean a lower likelihood that young people complete the process, because youth are more likely than older voters to return their ballots later. While nearly three in four (74%) voters over the age of 29 returned their absentee ballot more than a week before Election Day, only 55% of 18- to 29-year-olds did so. Youth of color were even less likely to return their ballots early: only 42% said they returned their mail ballot more than a week before Election Day, compared to 61% of white youth. Conversely, 23% of young voters said they returned their absentee ballot a few days before or on Election Day. That includes nearly one in three (32%) young people of color and 18% of white youth. 

There were also differences by college experience: only 42% of young people (ages 21-29) with no college experience returned their ballot more than a week before Election Day, compared to 61% of those with college experience. One reason may be that young people with no college experience were also less likely to report that they found the absentee voting process easy. While three in four (74%) of youth ages 21-29 with college experience described it as a “very easy” process, 58% of youth in that age group with no college experience said so.

The more states limit the time to request or return an absentee ballot, the less time young people may have to learn how to do it, seek support, or work through any problems like needing to correct a signature. According to CIRCLE’s analysis of state electoral policies, at least 44 states have a system for voters to track their absentee ballots after they have been mailed, but only 29 states notify voters if their signature is wrong on their ballot. Only 16 states explicitly state that voters are allowed to resolve a signature issue with their absentee ballot after Election Day has passed. 


The use of vote by mail and absentee ballots expanded greatly due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and many young people report that they will use this voting method in 2022. Of the young people who voted by mail in 2020, 81% reported they are somewhat or very likely to vote by mail in most future elections. In this first midterm election since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, election officials and policymakers should ensure mail voting is easy and accessible to young voters, who face logistical barriers to voting in-person. Ensuring equitable election access is a critical part of growing voters in 2022 and in every election.

CIRCLE Growing Voters

Released in 2022, the CIRCLE Growing Voters report introduces a new framework to transform how communities and institutions prepare youth for democracy. It includes major recommendations for organizations across sectors to do this work more equitably and effectively.